Climate Change, Disasters

May’s Storm Surges Disrupt Coastal Water Tables

Since May 2-3, Salvadoran coastal communities have experienced a series of large waves, or storm surges, that roar over the shoreline and inland. La Libertad, Majahual, and other communities have suffered significant loss, including at least one death. The surges have been reported from Mexico to Chile and are believed to be the result of storms far out in the Pacific Ocean.

Dramatic videos show large waves flooding houses, swimming pools, restaurants, and seaside villages, but they don’t show the long-term affect on water tables in coastal communities.

MontecristoMontecristo in the Bajo Lempa region of Jiquilisco, Usulután reports that since the surges began earlier in the month, their well water has been contaminated with seawater. There is no freshwater available in the community. This would be a serious issue in any community, but for Montecristo it is especially serious because the community is located in dense mangrove forests and is only accessible by foot or boat. There is no way that a water truck could get to Montecristo and supply them with fresh water.

Voices on the Border met with the community leaders and the Bajo Lempa Water Cooperative and have begun the process of getting them tapped into the region’s water system, but this will take time and a relatively large financial investment. And the community wants to be sure that they do not disturb the mangrove forests they are charged with protecting. In the meantime, the community has to bring in 5-gallon jugs of water by boat – an expense that no one can afford. Voices will meet with the community again next week to continue planning how to best address the issue.

There are reports that many small communities along the coast are reporting the same issue – salinization of their well water.

Storm surges are not random occurrences. They are a product of hurricanes and cyclones, and can travel for thousands of miles, affecting regions far from the storm. Scientists predict that as ambient and ocean temperatures rise with climate change, and cause larger more powerful storms, coastal regions will be subject to larger and more devastating surges. The National Center for Atmospheric Research predicts that “the greatest threats from sea level rise and future storm-surge effects will likely occur along the Pacific Coast,” which is where the latest storm surges landed.

In 2009, the Center for Global Development published a paper titled, “Climate Change and the Future of Storm-Surge Disasters in Developing Countries.” It identifies El Salvador as among the top five low-income countries vulnerable to storm surges. They estimate that more than 50% of El Salvador’s coastal agricultural economy and nearly 100% of wetlands are at risk of flooding caused by storm surges. “For the majority of indicators used in this research, we observe the most consistently-severe exposure to risks for El Salvador, Yemen, Djibouti, Mozambique, and Togo.”

Even more specific, however, in a paper published in 2007 titled “Vulnerability and Adaption to Climate Change of Rural Populations in the Coastal Plain of El Salvador,” experts predicted that water tables in the Bajo Lempa would be salinized by 2020. The report says there is a medium to high level of threat that by 2020 there will be “salinization of aquifers due to the combined effects of floods and tides in the coastal fringe.”

This month’s storm surges are just another reminder that climate change is a reality and is happening now, and it is the impoverished communities around the world are suffering the consequences. Even if we are able to get Montecristo tapped into the Bajo Lempa water system, it won’t decrease the emissions of green house gases or decrease the risks of future storm surges, hurricanes, floods, and other disasters.

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Environment, Tourism

U.S. and El Salvador Ready to Sign Second MCC Compact

DSCF0220Beach in Corral de Mulas on the San Juan del Gozo Peninsula. Behind the fence is an incubator for critically endangered sea turtles. The land is owned by a wealthy investor who is allowing locals to incubate the sea turtle eggs until he is ready to break ground on a tourism project.

After more than a year of delays, the governments of El Salvador and the United States seem ready to sign a second Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) compact. Last weekend, Salvadoran President Salvador Sanchez Cerén said they would close the deal on September 30th.

The U.S. Embassy says the second MCC compact, which includes $277 million from the U.S. and $88.2 million from El Salvador, will “spur investment through public private partnerships and better regulations, improve the quality of education, and strengthen key logistical infrastructure.”

After the agreement is signed, the U.S. will disburse $10 million to FOMELINIO (the Salvadoran organization managing the grant) to lay the groundwork for MCC projects. From then it will take six to nine months before other funds will be released and projects can begin.

While the $277 grant from the U.S. is popular among Salvadorans and politicians, communities in the Jiquilisco Bay of Usulután remain strongly opposed to the aid package. They believe the MCC grant will help finance the destruction of the region’s fragile natural resources and agrarian culture.

As Voices has discussed elsewhere on this blog, developers want to use MCC funds to promote tourism along the coast. They are particularly interested in the Jiquilisco Bay, which they have proposed turning into the “Cancun of Central America.” The communities targeted for development argue that large-scale tourism projects will cause irreversible harm to the mangrove forests they rely on for their survival and beaches that critically endangered sea turtles use for a nesting ground.

DSCF0158A community leader speaking to a group about how land speculation and tourism projects are already affecting the health of the mangrove forests and destabilizing the community.

Hundreds of families in the Bay region make their living by fishing and harvesting crab. For generations they have cared for the mangroves and beaches, protecting them and taking only what they need to survive. In theory the Ministry of the Environment is supposed to enforce laws that protect the forests and the right for local communities to harvest what they need to survive. But residents say the State does not get down there much, and few have faith in the Ministry’s ability or willingness to enforce laws.

Community leaders emphasize that they are not against tourism; they welcome visitors who want to tour the mangrove forests, bird watch, and even surf. They are opposed only to the kind of large-scale, unregulated development that investors are planning for the region.

Most of the opposition to MCC is due to the complete lack of public consultation. Community leaders are quick to point out that MCC and FOMELINIO officials have never been to the region to discuss development priorities or what is at stake when investors talk about turning the Jiquilisco Bay into the Cancun of Central America.

Manuel Cruz, a representative of El Chile, says his community is united in their opposition to the MCC grant. He says MCC or FOMELINIO representatives have never come to the region to discuss the grant, much less ask how it might benefit (or harm) the region. All they have heard is that investors want to use funds to develop tourism and that land speculators have been acquiring land all around them, denying access to mangrove forests and beaches that are supposed to be public land.

Another community leader who wishes to remain anonymous says that the closest thing to consultation he knows of was an informal conversation he had in March 2013 with a supporter of the MCC grant. The supporter, who works for an international NGO, said his community had to support the MCC because opposing it would be going against the FMLN party, for which there would be consequences. The community leader ignored the threat and his community remains united in its opposition.

Jose “Mario” Santos Guevarra, representative of the United Communities of the Bajo Lempa and the President of MOVIAC, has voiced opposition against MCC and FOMELINIO on several occasions. His concerns also focus on the lack of consultation from MCC and FOMELINIO. He argues that if MCC and FOMELINIO were really interested in building infrastructure and had consulted with the people, they would know that one of the biggest barriers to economic growth along the coast is the poor condition of the levees along the Lempa and other rivers.

Mario and many others see the lack of consultation as an indication that the MCC grant is meant to benefit rich investors – creating conditions for them to extract value out of the coastal region. He says that if the MCC was to benefit the people, it would not require a $100,000 counterpart to access grant funds. In theory, communities like El Chile, La Tirana, and others could apply for MCC funds to finally install potable water systems or connect to the electrical grid, which they need. But they are unable to front the $100,000 needed to receive MCC funds.

Residents of Chile during a recent meeting to discuss tourism and the impact of land speculation on their ability to access mangrove forests. Residents of Chile during a recent meeting to discuss tourism and the impact of land speculation on their ability to access mangrove forests.

Over the past year and a half, Voices staff has shared these concerns over the lack of consultation with policymakers at the U.S. Embassy in San Salvador. We have extended at least three invitations to host meetings between Embassy staff, who have a role in the MCC grant, and coastal communities. The Embassy has declined each of these invitations.

According to newspaper articles, $110 million of the MCC grant will be used to expand a section of the Litoral Highway between the airport and Zacatecaluca. Another $100 million will be for education. That leaves another $155.2 million to cover administrative costs and support tourism and other development. Communities in the Jiquilisco Bay have not had a voice in the MCC planning or approval process, and it is unlikely that that they will have a voice in deciding which proposals for MCC projects get approved. That does not mean, however, communities are going to allow developers to destroy their mangrove forests, beaches and agrarian way of life. They will be paying close attention to how MCC and FOMELINIO use the funds and ensure none will be used to harm their fragile ecosystems.

Environment

Earth Day and Climate Change in the Bajo Lempa

This weekend residents of the Bajo Lempa region of Usulután are celebrating Earth Day in Amando Lopez. The events will focus on climate change and its extreme impacts on the communities, as well as the possible impacts of the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) and associated tourism projects. Voices posted a blog last week regarding the MCC in El Salvador, and another today about the effect of climate change. We will post more over the weekend about the Earth Day activities and future efforts in the fight to protect communities and the environment in the Bajo Lempa.

This article was written by Jose Acosta, Voices’ new field director, and first published in Contrapunto (El Bajo Lempa con Tenacidad y Esperanza), an online journal in El Salvador.

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The Bajo Lempa, with Tenacity and Hope

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change says human actions are directly changing our global climate, and environmental changes will affect all people and ecosystems. The panel also shows that those who live below the poverty line will suffer the greatest impacts.

Residents of El Salvador have already felt the disastrous effects of climate change. The Salvadoran Ecological Unit (UNES, in Spanish) reports that the country’s average temperature has increased 1.2 degrees over the past 40 years. As a consequence, there has been an increase in the occurrence and strength of storms and hurricanes. A recent government study found that El Salvador has suffered five large-magnitude, climate-related events in just the past three years. These events resulted in 244 deaths and affected more than 500,000 people, 86,000 of which live in shelters. In addition, these events have caused considerable material damage. Three storms – hurricanes Ida and Agatha, and stropical storm 12-E – resulted in $1.3 billion in damage.

Poorer populations are even more vulnerable to the effects of climate change, and these storms exacerbate poverty by further reducing the ability of impoverished families to respond to crises. During and after disasters, households are forced to use or sell their few resources just to survive, limiting their long-term resilience and further diminishing their food security. Their way of life and capacity to cope with their poverty are weakened with each disaster, forcing many into chronic poverty. CESTA/Friends of the Earth demonstrated this cycle in a study carried out  in the communities of Amando Lopez and Comunidad Octavio Ortiz, located in the Lower Lempa region of Usulután.

The study reports that the main problem for communities in the Bajo Lempa is flooding. According to the Confederations of Federations for Agrarian Reform (CONFRAS) flooding is partly due to the mismanagement of the 15 of September dam located a few kilometers up the Lempa River. During Tropical Storm 12E (October 2011), the discharge from the dam reached 9,000 cubic meters per second, resulting in record flooding throughout the communities downstream from the dam. The CEL, the government institution that manages the dam, was supposed to send information about flow rates to the communities downstream to warn them when the Lempa River may rise. Unfortunately, the CEL did not communicate with the communities and the most extreme flooding happened with little warning.

Organizaitons in the Bajo Lempa, however, came together and formed the Inter-Institutional Roundtable, and issued a press release on November 11, 2011 stating, “We demand to know the CEL’s plan for managing the release of water from the dam and the environmental impact study in order to coordinate the agricultural production cycles and manage risks, and to prioritize life and the protection of the inhabitants of the communities.”

In addition to the flooding, the local population reports several other impacts of climate change, including higher temperatures, droughts, extinction of species, increase of disease, and salinzation of soil and water sources due to increased sea levels. The Association of the United Communities for Economic and Social Development of the Bajo Lempa (ACUDESBAL) declared that communities in the Bajo Lempa are strongly feeling the affects of climate change, and that it has increased food insecurity and made poverty worse.

These problems increase as the levels of consumption and the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere continue to rise. The IPCC says that if CO2 in the atmosphere reaches 450 ppm, average temperatures will rise 2 degrees. Such a rise in temperatures will cause catastrophic climate events.

For El Salvador projections indicate an increase in the temperature between 0.8 and 1.1 degrees by the year 2020. Some of the expected impacts in the Bjao Lempa are:

–       Public health problems

–       Shortage of potable water and species of plants and animals

–       Contamination of wells and salinization of bodies of water,

–       Degradation of agricultural lands and decrease in their productivity

–       Loss of domestic animals and livestock

–       Local drainage systems will fill with sediment and collapse

–       Failure of other existing flood prevention systems, among them roads, paths, and bridges

The affected communities are already taking steps to prevent these impacts before they happen. Concepción Martínez, a historic leader of Comunidad Octavio Ortiz, recently stated, “We believe that in confronting climate change, the only viable option is to fight for our survival.”

A resolution adopted by various communities states, “we meet under the heat in La Canoa (another name for Comunidad Octavio Ortiz), to analyze the impacts of climate change that we are experiencing in the form of floods and droughts, but also in the form of the voracity of the transnational businesses and governments that do not respect the cycles of life.

In this occasion we (communities in the Bajo Lempa) express:

“We commit to watch and demand that government policies confront climate change, and we demand they listen and include the opinions and proposals from the communities and civic organizations when forming these policies… to survive and maintain hope that another Bajo Lempa is possible.”